A few hours after Shurhozelie Liezeitsu met the Nagaland governor and staked his claim to form the next government in the state, the Nagaland Tribes Action Committee (NTAC) announced that it will lift the bandh that has paralysed the state for more than a month. Shurhozelie will replace T.R. Zeliang who stepped down on Sunday after failing to contain the violent protests that broke out after his government decided to hold municipal elections with 33 per cent reservation for women. Although the Zeliang government decided to defer the elections to urban local bodies, the Naga Hoho, the body that represents the state’s 16 tribal bodies, was not willing to accept anything short of revoking the decision to reserve seats for women, which it believes violates the safeguards provided to tribal customs under Article 371 A of the Constitution. Zeliang’s request to the Centre to issue an ordinance exempting Nagaland from reserving seats for women in urban local bodies refused to placate the tribal body. That they have called off the bandh on the eve of Shurhozelie’s swearing-in signals that the tribal groups are willing to give the new CM some breathing space.
Shurhozelie, however, has a related but more difficult test at hand. At the heart of the turmoil that led to Zeliang’s resignation is the conflict between traditionalists, who believe Naga tribal customs must remain sacrosanct, and those who believe Naga society must adapt to change and modernisation. For a state with a long history of insurgency and ethnic conflict, the Naga Hoho’s anxiety to safeguard tribal customs is understandable. But the obstinacy of Nagaland’s tribal groups even when the demand for change has come from within — the strongest demands for municipal elections and reservations have come from Naga women’s groups — can only be ascribed to patriarchal mindsets. The new CM will need to show political imagination to resolve this longstanding contradiction in Naga society.
Shurhozelie has the credentials for the job. A scholar, author and linguist, he has the reputation of being a reformist and is also respected by the state’s traditionalists. As minister of education, he was credited with introducing far-reaching reforms in the state’s school education system. Nagaland’s tribal groups have welcomed Shurhozelie’s election but they have also made it clear that they won’t budge from their stated position on women’s reservation. It remains to be seen if Shurhozelie buckles under pressure or stands true to his reputation.